Stephens: Chance is there for WKU to make another run

Brad Stephens

When you’re going into a four-day event that decides the fate of your entire season, it’s good to be going in with a little momentum on your side.

Everyone remembers WKU winning four games in for days last spring to win the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Championship. What some forget is the Toppers went into that tournament having won three of their last four games and playing the best basketball of their season.

One year later, WKU has again won three of its last four games going into this weekend’s Sun Belt Tournament in Hot Springs, Ark. Sixth-seeded WKU plays its first round game at 6 p.m. Friday against 11-seed ULM.

The Toppers’ 79-73 win Thursday against South Alabama might have been their best performance of the season. Their 70-62 loss to Sun Belt regular season champs Middle Tennessee Saturday was a missed opportunity at a landmark win. However it was still a big turnaround from their 72-53 loss to the Blue Raiders in late January.

For seemingly the first time since Hilltopper Hysteria, everyone is in game shape.

The infirmary that was WKU’s squad circa mid-December has been replaced by a full roster of healthy players. Back then the Toppers were relying on Brandon Harris and George Fant to run the show with Jamal Crook, T.J. Price and several role players out of commission.

Now Crook, Harris, Price and Fant all appear to be playing the roles we expected at the beginning of the season — Crook as a quick, veteran point guard, Harris as the hustle guy and shooter, Price as the outside scorer and Fant as the first option in the post.

Another important step in the team’s progression has been the emergence of Aleksejs Rostov in the middle. The Latvian freshman was given playing time by coach Ray Harper early in the season and endured some growing pains adjusting to the physicality of college basketball front court play.

But the one thing Harper’s continually mentioned this year with Rostov is his ability to learn and grow from coaching criticisms. That’s been evident on the court, as he’s become more comfortable and more assertive in his offensive role.

Rostov’s development has turned what could’ve been a big distraction, the dismissal of frustrating big man Teeng Akol, into a moot point. If anything, Akol’s dismissal may have been addition by subtraction because it’s allowed Rostov to be “the guy” at center.

The core five of Crook, Harris, Price, Fant and  Rostov are playing good basketball at the right time. Most of the team’s role players are also settling nicely into their roles, though Caden Dickerson continues to struggle.

WKU has about the best draw it could ask for in Hot Springs. The Toppers should make quick work of lightweight ULM in the first round.

In the second round, the Toppers will draw third-seeded South Alabama, a team they beat just the week before.

Waiting in the semis will likely be second-seeded Arkansas State, which will be tricky. The big, physical Red Wolves are a tough matchup for  the Toppers, and beat them in both meetings this season. But ASU is beatable, as evidenced by back-to-back losses going into the Sun Belt Tournament.

Waiting in the finals will likely be MTSU, which would be playing its last Sun Belt game as a league member. There wouldn’t be a more fun Sun Belt matchup than that potential title game.

The two teams loathe each other, and the Blue Raiders’ post game mosh pit on the red towel logo at Diddle Arena Saturday didn’t do anything to change that. A Sun Belt final between WKU and MTSU would feature all sorts of pushing, trash-talking and other shenanigans that make rivalries fun.

It’s also a game in which the Toppers could pull an upset if things go there way.

Winning four Sun Belt Tournament games in four days for the second straight year will be a tall order. A combination of momentum from the end of the season and favorable draw in Hot Springs will certainly help.

I’m not willing to go out on a limb and say WKU wins the whole thing, but I’m willing to at least predict it makes the semifinals.

If the Toppers can make it that far and then take down ASU and MTSU for the title, it’ll be the second straight wild ending to a WKU basketball season.